Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins is best know for her photo-realistic drawings and paintings of nature subjects – the ocean, sky, moon, desert, rocks, and spider webs – with a masterful level of detail that can border on abstraction. These works are based on her own photographs or those cut from magazines and journals. In her paintings and drawings there is a lack of a recognizable reference or horizon line. Her nature works give a viewer a sense of quiet since there is often no presence of any living creature shown.
Celmins was born in Latvia, and her early childhood was shaped by the chaos of World War II. She has spoken of her time creating art as a release from the violence of her youth. After World War II her family arrived in the United States and settled in Indianapolis. She studied art and won a fellowship to Yale’s Summer School of Art where she met Chuck Close and Brice Marden. In 1965, she received her M.F.A. from U.C.L.A.
In the early 1960s, Celmins began painting life-size depictions of everyday objects. By the end of the decade, Celmins expanded this theme, making sculptures of familiar objects – many related to childhood – such as puzzles, pencils, erasers, and combs. Executed on a monumental scale, these works are serious but playful, redolent of the works of Surrealist artist Rene Magritte.
In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Celmins concentrated on graphite pictures of remote natural locales where the heavily worked surfaces are often so glossy and smooth that the artistry is invisible. Her 1969 “Sea Drawing with Whale,” is part of her exploration of the sea, a seemingly empty oceanic vista. She was inspired by the flatness of photography and her palette of blacks and grays. She fills her paper to the very edge so that the image seems to expand out of the frame.
Between 1977 and 1982, Celmins made 11 small painted bronze replicas, exact in every detail, of ordinary stones. These replicas followed more than a decade of her exquisite drawings of the surface of the sea, the moon, the night sky, and the desert.
In 1981, Celmins moved to New York and returned to painting after twelve years of working in pencil. Since then she fuses the surface of the perceivable world in her canvases with the grainy texture of the paper or canvas. Her subject matter: starry blue-black skies, aerial views of choppy seas, or pale lunar landscapes has remained consistent with the emphasis on nature, that was in her earlier 1970s works.
The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1997, Celmins has had more than 40 solo exhibitions in galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, and San Francisco. She has had retrospectives in the Museum of Modern Art, Tate London, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Celmins first North American retrospective in 25 years will feature some 150 paintings, sculptures, and drawings. It started at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through March 31, 2019 and travelled in the fall to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Breuer Building, the very same building where she had a major traveling exhibition in 1992, when it was the old Whitney Museum of American Art.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, Hammer Museum, and Art Institute of Chicago among other.